SEPT / OCT 2013: BY CHRISTY McDOUGALL
For my literary villain, I offer a minister and aspiring missionary who wants nothing more than to do what he is called to do; a man called good by all the people who know him; a man who believes serving God as a missionary is the greatest thing anyone can do; a man willing to give up everything important to him to go out and live, serve, and die in India, doing the work of God; a man determined to help preserve the virtue of a young woman he knows and admires and offers her the chance to do what is truly noble and serve God by his side. This man is Jane Eyre’s St. John Rivers, one of my least favorite fictional characters of all time.
As an aspiring theologian and missionary myself, I love missionaries and ministers in fiction, and other characters who are bound and determined to do God’s will against all obstacles. But I can’t remember a character who agitates me to the degree that St. John Rivers does, every single time I read Jane Eyre, which is frequently.
For those unacquainted with the plot , here are some spoilers necessary to understanding my view of St. John as the villain of the piece. Little, plain, impoverished, and intelligent Jane Eyre, after a loveless childhood and harsh education, becomes a governess for a child in a mysterious manor house in a remote area of England. She meets, falls in love with, and becomes engaged to the master of the house, Edward Rochester, a peculiar, ugly, mercurial, none-too-virtuous but ever so compelling man with a secret. The secret, which makes a Gothic novel of the book, is that he is already married and has his thoroughly insane wife locked in the attic. When Jane finds out, she flees the temptation Rochester holds out to her of moving to the Continent and living in a false marriage. After hardship, she is taken in by her cousins Diana, Mary, and St. John Rivers, lives and works with them, and is eventually offered the chance to leave England, and all its painful associations, and go to India as St. John’s wife to live and die a missionary. She chooses to find out what happened to Rochester in her absence before making a final decision, learns his wife is dead, and marries him.
There’s no real bad guy in this story, no real villain, other than circumstances and personal temptation. By all accounts, Rochester should come closest because he tries to trick a virtuous and godly young woman into a bigamist marriage and then tries to tempt her into becoming his mistress. His rival, the handsome St. John, is portrayed as “good,” upright, and self-sacrificing yet I call St. John the antagonist, not Rochester. Wikipedia says, “An antagonist is a character, group of characters, or institution that represents the opposition against which the protagonist must contend.” The opposition St. John offers Jane Eyre nearly undoes her.
While Rochester creates opposition for Jane by tempting her to sin with him, she is strong enough to oppose him and run away. Rochester is a sad character, as much sinned against as sinning, driven through pain and loneliness to try to take what comfort he can in the piquancy of Jane’s presence, unaware of the forgiveness and comfort of Christ. He truly loves plain, insignificant Jane. He is a protagonist, and we long to see him find joy and love with Jane.
St. John, on the other hand, is a man seemingly of virtue and godliness, a minister with Christian authority but no Christian love. He has no love for his intelligent little cousin Jane. He only knows she would make a good fellow laborer. Love, and with it gentleness, mercy, and forgiveness, is not part of St. John’s Christianity. He is a cold man, a harsh man, and what is more, an arrogant man. He believes his will is God’s will, and anyone who opposes him and his agenda, as Jane tries to do when he proposes coldly to her, is opposing God. When Jane at first refuses to marry him, believing his diamond-hard character will kill her if she is forced to submit to him, he believes she is denying God in her life and is worse than the heathen. He treats her with cold, hard anger and unforgiveness.
By the end of the book, he has nearly brainwashed Jane into believing he is right. By his coldness to her when her whole being cries out for the love and kindness of family, he manipulates her into almost agreeing to his request. She can stand up to the fire of Rochester but not the ice of St. John. But we, the readers, know his agenda is all wrong. Jane’s purpose is not missions in India, as good and noble as missions in India is. Jane belongs with Rochester. The point of the whole book is that she belongs with him. In fact, when Jane returns to Rochester, she performs her own missionary work, because her return brings him to an understanding of God’s love and forgiveness. In obeying St. John, the missionary, she would have been false to her true Christian purpose.
St. John Rivers is not a classic villain, nor do I think Charlotte Brontë intended to write him as one. But he stands in the way of the story’s fulfillment, which makes him an antagonist, and he inserts his will for God’s, which makes him even worse. He is a more immoral character than even Rochester, because in all his claims to godliness, Christianity, ministry, and following God’s will, he gives no room in his life for the love and mercy that make a true believer. St. John Rivers nearly destroys our protagonist, and that makes him the unintended villain. ♥